Saturday, February 11, 2012


The Story of Civilization I: Our Oriental Heritage, Will Durant, Simon and Schuster, 1935, 938 pp


I read this first volume of The Story of Civilization off and on for over a year. It was my first successful attempt at reading history and taught me how to do so. I have to thank Will Durant for that. Finishing it was a triumph for me as a student of literature, the world, and life.

We all probably remember doing a unit in Social Studies on the cradle of civilization, Babylonia and all that. Boring but some cool pictures. My theory on the study of history during childhood is that we have our whole lives ahead of us, we are interested in the future, not the past. So to that teacher who did her best with me, I can report that I finally learned what is so important about the cradle of civilization. Our Oriental Heritage even got me to read The Epic of Gilgamesh.

I felt enriched and full of learning. I had many ah ha moments and wish that I had taken notes. Most of all I learned (as if I did not already know) that the same insanities have been replayed over and over for thousands of years. It became true for me that though we have made great strides in learning to control and handle the material world, we lag in mental and emotional growth and have not brought about much more peace or security.

I grew to appreciate what a long and winding road mankind is traveling. If it is our destiny to evolve to any sort of higher state, it will not be happening anytime soon and attempts to predict such an evolution are laughable at best though entertaining to contemplate. And yet, knowing where we have come from and how it has gone has value. Our Oriental Heritage gave me hope. We are capable of much understanding, we can create and build amazing things, even while we are stupid, greedy and much too adept at destruction.

Durant takes the reader from the earliest evidences of civilization through ancient Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylonia and the countries of the Old Testament. He covers India, China, and Japan. As he says in the Preface, "I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind." He did do that in as readable a history as I have come across.

(The Story of Civilization volumes are out of print. They are best found in libraries and through used book sellers.)

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